What is a pirate?  In today’s society, there are two distinct answers:  the glamorous and sneaky pirate embodied by Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean and the feared, but distant, pirates of East Africa.  These pirates, Somali men mostly between the ages of 20 and 35, are pirates, feared just like the real pirates of the Caribbean during the 17th and 18tharghpiratemap.jpg centuries.  Who are they and what drives them to hold the 13 cargo-ships currently within their seizure ransom?  

First, a brief history lesson: It is hard to say when piracy truly began, perhaps because it emerged almost as soon as civilizations became sea-faring.  In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans were terrorized by rovers from the Middle East on the Mediterranean who mixed naval warfare with thievery.  In addition to these pirates, Phoenicians also threatened the safety of the Sea by combining piracy with legitimate business, and, to the North, the Vikings created a lifestyle based largely on pillaging costal towns.  After the voyages of Columbus charted the way for Spanish domination of the Caribbean, other European nations endorsed sailors to fight, raid and harass the Spanish on the seas.  These men, called privateers, split their acquisitions equally and then gave the remaining half to the commissioning government.  The “Golden Age of Piracy” during the 17th and 18th centuries saw the emergence of legendary pirates like Edward Teach (Black Beard), “Black Bart” Roberts and Captain William Kidd.  As naval forces grew in the Caribbean, piracy slowly declined in the Western Hemisphere, but is still a very real problem in some parts of the world today.

argh somalia.jpgSince the collapsing of the Somali central government in 1991, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean off the Horn of Africa have become the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world.  In 2008, more than 120 attacks occurred by Somali pirates, bringing in revenue of over $100 million  The world turned to these attacks in February, 2009, when $3.2 million in ransom, dropped via parachute, was surrendered for a Ukrainian freighter.

Unlike other feared groups, these pirates do not usually harm their
captives, but rather wait for high ransoms. Mostly from the region of
Puntland, these young men build large houses, drive argh pirate.jpegexpensive cars,
purchase sizeable stores of guns, and often marry several women.  With
a collapsed government and economy, the pirates see few viable
alternatives and, until recently, their line of work was largely
accepted by the general Somali populace.  Gangs consist of ex-sailors,
ex-military members and technologically savvy men to operate GIS
systems and other geographical devices used to commandeer ships.  Like
navigators in developed countries, pirate gangs have at least one
member trained to operate geographical equipment.  This knowledge comes
in handy when locating ships, demanding ransom and steering the ship
(if necessary)

In the United States, Somali piracy became news with the capture of the Maersk Alabama cargo
ship and Captain Richard Phillips of Underhill, VT.  After a five-day
standoff, American snipers, with orders from President Obama to rescue
Phillips, shot the three captors.  Piracy is a serious problem in
international waters off of Somalia’s 1,880 mile coast.  Every year,
nearly 20,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden to and from the Suez
Canal.  Securing the area is an international effort among the United
States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, China, India and

Within Somalia, tensions are growing between the
predominantly Muslim population and the pirates, who are said to bring
evils like drugs, alcohol and AIDS to the region. Despite the arg pirates.jpgweak
government’s cracking down on piracy, including a plan to undergo
EU-led training, officials believe that the pirates have in fact helped
Somalia, in a roundabout way. “The world is finally paying attention to
our pain,” said Puntland’s minister of planning and international
cooperation, Farah Dala. After Phillips’ kidnapping, nations pledged
more than $200 million to help Somalia end piracy, money and aid that
is desperately needed.  With 13 ships and approximately 200 sailors
still held hostage, this is a global issue that the world must work
together to address.

Many countries, from the U.S. to France to
Iran, are trying to fight against piracy off the coast of Somalia.  How
do you think international organizations could better collaborate to
combat these pirates?

Melissa for My Wonderful World

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